For the last three years, the media industry has been talking in circles. We've been told time and again that native advertising can't scale. The thing is, that's not true.
Agencies and brands need not be afraid of this much more engaging, more dynamic, better performing advertising tool. While native advertising is, by definition, custom, it can, with the right strategies and technologies, scale.
For starters, the content has to be good. If the sponsored article is subpar, the results will be subpar. The best way to avoid this is to rely on publishers. Publishers are in the business of creating attention around content, and many publishers have former journalists sitting at the top of the in-house "content studios" that work with brands.
As for agencies, here's what you can do: Don't get in the way. You're the brand advocate and you can help the publisher make the content better by suggesting areas of focus. But leave the writing to the paid experts. And publishers, you have to listen to your clients. You may know how to turn a phrase, but marketers understand their brand.
Also, social matters. People can't read your native content if you don't share it—and if the content is good, more people will share it. Remember the New York Times' native ad with Netflix for "Orange Is the New Black" from last year? Sure you do. You saw it in your feed. You saw it in pitch decks. You saw it at industry conferences. It was a good piece that got shared. A lot.
Sometimes, however, for whatever reason, content needs some extra juice to get shared. That's ok. Content can be promiscuous. Using content recommendation engines can get you the pageviews and impressions you want. But beware: They might not be the most valuable ones. First, consider the strength of your own network. Brands can use their reputations—and social footprints—to drive traffic to the content they've created with a publisher.
The last thing to consider: mobile. Display and banner ads on mobile are too small. Users just aren't in clicking-on-ad mode while waiting at the doctor's office or killing time between meetings. But a good piece of content? Now we're talking. With publishers seeing more traffic come in through mobile (as well as the swinging side door of social on mobile), native ads can have a powerful purpose. We've seen mobile sponsored content get over three minutes average engagement time.
Put all this together—strong targeting capabilities, mixed with strong social influence, spun together by solid content—and the whole "native ads can't scale" myth goes down the drain.
Native advertising scares brands and agencies because it's hard work and means relinquishing some control to the publisher. Advertising has always been about control. However, native advertising isn't a bogey man.
BuzzFeed's VP Jonathan Perelman had the money quote about two years ago: "Content is king, but distribution is queen and she wears the pants."
It's been repeated ad nauseum. But in today's hyperbolic and hypermetabolic state of media, getting content in front of not just eyeballs, but lots and lots of the right eyeballs, is the key to the kingdom. And unlike King Arthur, the ability to scale native ads isn't a myth.